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Four Decades of Change

O. Robert Simha, MIT’s planning director from 1960 to 2000, believes the design of MIT’s campus reflects its educational philosophy: the kilometers of corridors that link department to department and building to building facilitate the free-flowing, interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. “Buildings are the shelter for and the device by which the intellectual activity can get done,” Simha says.

Simha has chronicled 40 years of Institute building projects in MIT Campus Planning 19602000: An Annotated Chronology, recently published by the MIT Press. He describes each project as it relates to both campus and community. The Kendall Square subway station extension and renovation in the mid-1980s, for example, was deeply intertwined with MIT’s campus planning. Simha made sure the new station entrance opened toward the Health Services Center, creating a direct path into the heart of campus.

Simha hopes this book will be read by students and professors of planning, who can learn “pitfalls to avoid.” They can also learn from MIT’s successes. Simha believes MIT’s most significant planning success is flexibility: the ability to foresee changes in science and to build accordingly, but also to design buildings that can be reconfigured as needs (such as more lab space) arise. “You can accommodate new ideas if you don’t have to search for new buildings,” Simha says.

Enlightened Learning

MIT undergraduates have created a projector that uses long-lasting light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to display the information contained on microfilm. The students see it as an inexpensive teaching tool for Third World countries.

In Mali, where the students tested their projector, many adults attend school at night. Classrooms are often inadequately lit, and school systems usually can’t afford to buy enough books for their pupils. The battery-powered microfilm projector, named Kinkajou after a nocturnal South American mammal with incredibly shiny eyes, solves both problems. The projected image, like a kinkajou’s eyes, is easy to see in the dark, and the microfilm reels, which hold up to 10,000 pages of text, cost less than $25. The projector’s batteries can be recharged using a bicycle-powered generator or solar power.

Beto Peliks ‘03, a mechanical engineering graduate student, says that when he field-tested the projector in Mali during a nighttime literacy course, students were eager to participate in the class because the experience was like watching a movie.

Kinkajou was created with the help of Design That Matters, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve life in developing countries.

Pebble Bed Fellows

MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing will join together to develop a pebble bed nuclear reactor in China for research purposes. The collaboration was made possible by a formal agreement between the United States and China that allows the two countries to exchange technologies and ideas related to nuclear power.

Pebble bed nuclear reactors, which have been studied at MIT since the 1980s, promise to be far safer and more efficient than today’s nuclear power plants. They are powered by uranium enclosed in billiard-ball-sized graphite “pebbles” that are meltdown-proof. “Everybody essentially now believes that there is no way we could melt this reactor down,” says Andrew Kadak, professor of nuclear engineering and MIT team leader. Unlike traditional reactors, pebble bed reactors could be assembled out of prefabricated modules to cut down on construction costs. Another benefit is that the reactors get hot enough to speed the electrolysis of water, producing hydrogen, which scientists believe will one day be an important source of fuel.

In the next year, the MIT team will use Tsinghua’s research reactor-the world’s only operating pebble-bed reactor-to test system analysis software.

Game Therapy

Two new computer games developed by the Media Lab Europe and Trinity College Dublin may help adolescents recover from depression. Both games are based on solution-focused therapy, in which patients think about their problems and then come up with answers under the guidance of therapists.

Personal Investigator turns young patients into detectives who search for solutions to personal problems by visiting five rooms in a castle. In each room, they answer questions and record their responses in a digital detective’s notebook. After working through the questions in one room, detectives are given a key to the next room. The ideais that by answering the questions, teens will clarify their goals and discover hidden strengths and resources that will help them overcome their depression.

Working Things Out presents the stories of 10 adolescents who have coped with mental-health difficulties and shows how they overcame their problems. Patients view the game with their therapists and then use it to tell their own multimedia stories. The hope is that after hearing other teens’ stories, patients will more readily open up and tell their own, says John Sharry, a research scientist at the Media Lab Europe who is working on the project.

“Video games get a lot of bad press,” says Sharry, who is also a psychotherapist in the Department of Child and Family Psychiatry at Dublin’s Mater Hospital. “We’re joining with young people to find ways to use them constructively.”

Both games are now being tested with patients at Mater Hospital.

Advisor to the President

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Kristin Forbes, PhD ‘98, an associate professor in the Sloan School of Management, as a member of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. The council of three noted academic economists provides expert and unbiased analysis on a wide range of national and international issues to the president, his staff, and other agencies that shape the administration’s policy.

“Kristin will be a very effective member,” says Richard Schmalensee, dean of the Sloan School and a member of the council during the first Bush administration. “She is able to analyze complex issues carefully and rapidly, and she is able to communicate the results of economic analyses clearly to non-economists.”

This is the second Washington assignment for Forbes, who specializes in international finance and development issues. She spent the 2001 academic year at the U.S. Treasury Department, analyzing financial crises in emerging nations. On the Council of Economic Advisers, Forbes is exploring issues related to trade with China, U.S. steel tariffs, and South American countries in severe financial difficulties.

Serving on the council “makes me think more broadly of the social and political costs of different policies,” says Forbes, who is on leave from MIT. “On good days, I feel like I really make a difference in shaping policy that will help thousands.”

At 33, Forbes is the youngest person ever to serve on the council, which was established in 1946. She expects to hold this position for about two years.

Wonder Woman

Institute professor Sheila Widnall, a member of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame last October at a ceremony in Seneca Falls, NY. She was one of 12 inductees for 2003 and was chosen for her outstanding professional achievements, as well as her dedication to the advancement of women in science.

Among other accomplishments, Widnall ‘60, MS ‘61, ScD ‘64, is a world-renowned engineer. Appointed secretary of the U.S. Air Force in 1993, she was the first, and so far the only, woman to head a branch of the U.S. military. She was also the first woman to serve as chair of the MIT faculty, and she was instrumental in increasing the number of women studying at the Institute. Widnall is currently vice president of the National Academy of Engineering. She has received honorary degrees from a dozen institutions and has top-secret government clearance. An expert on aerodynamics, she recently served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, exploring the space shuttle Columbia’s reentry accident.

“I am extremely delighted with this recognition,” says Widnall. “I am proud to be included among the honorees.” She is the fourth MIT alumna inductee into the hall of fame, which has also honored Shirley Ann Jackson ‘68, PhD ‘73, 1904 graduate Katharine Dexter McCormick, and Ellen Swallow Richards, who in 1873 became the Institute’s first female graduate.

Widnall grew up near McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, WA, where the sky was always full of airplanes. “I spent my childhood waving at pilots,” she says. “Now they wave at me.”

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